Chicago congregation donates $270,000 at Christmas after sale of historic church
A United Church of Christ congregation in Chicago is making this Christmas a memorable one for more than a dozen social justice organizations it has partnered with over the years. Wellington Avenue UCC, which recently sold its historic church building in the Lakeview neighborhood, is donating 10 percent of the sale’s net proceeds to those non-profit agencies to provide much-needed services to the community.
“Like many congregations, Wellington Avenue’s membership has dwindled over the last few years and we no longer need so much space,” said Pastor Ann-Louise Haak. “As a community of faith with a deep commitment to social justice, the members voted to use their resources to help build up their community rather than continue to maintain a building.”
The church is distributing $270,000 to 19 organizations “that feed the hungry, house the homeless, protect the environment, promote racial justice, and aid refugees and immigrants,” Haak said, noting that “the Coronavirus pandemic and the economic recession have made their work more difficult.
“They need the money now and we know it will quickly be put to good use. Several of the recipient agencies, we were happy to learn, will use the Wellington funds as matching grants in their year-end fund-raising campaigns.”
Building sold in days
The congregation voted to sell the building, which dates back to 1911, a year ago. Members had decided that the church campus – with a gym, auditorium and parsonage – was way more than they needed anymore. But before they could put the place up for sale, the pandemic forced the end of in-person worship.
“COVID-19 brought an unexpected gift to our congregation – we found we can worship together without having a physical building while we still had one. It made getting rid of the building a little easier,” Haak said. “No one knew it was going to be the last Sunday in the building when COVID happened in March.”
Haak was called in June as Wellington Avenue’s settled pastor and said she took this call “knowing that this big adventure was in store for the congregation.” And she was familiar with the church. Haak was part of the congregation when she was a seminary student 20 years ago. The sanctuary, she said, “was the place where I preached my first sermon ever.”
One of her first jobs as pastor was working with an agent to sell the building. Advised the process could take 12 to 18 months, the congregation got an offer just days after it went up on the market. The building was purchased by another faith community in the neighborhood for $2.85 million. The sale closed Sept. 11.
‘Tuck-pointing not in the Bible’
“How blessed are we that we don’t have to pay a heating bill in an empty building we aren’t using because of COVID,” Haak said. She expects the church will be worshipping virtually, live on Zoom, until the spring.
For now, the congregation is focused on Christmas. Advent goodie bags went out to everyone involved in the church. There are candles for Christmas Eve and even some gingersnap dough to cut and bake at home. The worship committee has planned Blue Christmas, Christmas Eve and Christmas services. Some of the members are alone, with no family. “It’s a very tender reminder of the importance of presence even when you can’t be together,” Haak said.
“I anticipate we will have some kind of physical space. It will be very different. There is so much possibility in our future – great for a congregation that felt a little stuck at times,” she said. “Tuck-pointing is not in the Bible, but we have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on that. We can put our energy and focus on what God is really calling us to do and the first step of that was to give a lot of money away.”
Checks going out
Pastor Haak said all 19 of the benefiting nonprofit agencies “do great social justice work.”
She cited three examples:
● North Side Housing and Supportive Services (NSHSS) operates a shelter, under Covid-19 conditions, for 40 homeless men in the Uptown neighborhood on Chicago’s north side and provides case management services, clothing, meals and supplies for many more. NSHSS also provides apartments for 194 formerly homeless persons. Other homeless programs that received grants from Wellington were Deborah’s Place, Sarah’s Circle, the Night Ministry, and the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.
● Lakeview Pantry, one of the oldest and longest serving food pantries in Chicago, is on track to provide 4 million meals to more than 100,000 clients this year. In addition to food, it provides mental health and social services to many clients. Other grant recipients, A Just Harvest, CROP Walk, and Bread for the World, also work to feed the hungry.
● Faith In Place runs five environmental programs with 359 faith partners throughout Illinois, and by the year’s end it will have planted tens of thousands of trees in the state. The organization advocates for a healthy environment and engages in energy conservation, sustainable agriculture and water preservation projects.
Checks are now going out to the above organizations, Haak said. “This is the time of year everyone asks you to give and now we can, in a big way.”
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